Edible art

Catherine Fellows wonders whether the art ofthe chefwho cooks the food is comparable to the art of the painter who paints it.

The theme of the latest exhibition of photographs at Edinburgh‘s French Institute is haute cuisine. The organisers took the opportunity at the first showing to host a round-table discussion on the subject of Food as Art. It is the only opening I have attended where. rather than having to nibble furtively. one was actually encouraged to concentrate on the wines and canapés on offer.

The latter dainty morsels were provided by acclaimed Scottish chef David Wilson of the Peat Inn in Cupar. who took his place at the high table. The other principal guests were Jean-Marc Tingaud. who took the pictures; Jean-Michel Lorain. who runs La COte Saint-Jacques. one of France‘s most prestigious restaurants. and is one ofsix chefs featured by Tingaud; and Moroccan-born novelist Driss Chraibi. whose characters are not

Georges Blanc's ‘Cnpas Parmantleros au Saumon at an Caviar.

‘disembodied‘, but eat lustily and in great detail on his pages.

The alliance of food and art is hardly a new one. Legends of inspiration gained by bottle and board are perhaps more numerous than those of the spur of hunger. It is hard to think ofa school ofpainting whose masterpieces do not depict foodstuffs and feasting in one form or another. For centuries artists have exploited the powerful images of food - be it the simple recording of early ceramic decorations, the elaborate social testimony of Rubens’ religious banqueting tableaux. or the grim connotations of Francis Bacon‘s ‘meat‘ canvases. It is hardly surprising, since each of us is obliged to eat with enslaving regularity. that our ttitude to food can reveal much about our relationship with life in general.

What is distinctive about the exhibition in question is that Tingaud is presenting the work of the great chefs not because of any symbolic value, but as works of art in themselves. His photographs depict perfectfaits accomplis. exquisitely designed dishes shot square on from above. the meticulous attention to details ofcolour, form and texture mirrored in the technical brilliance ofthe reproductions.

A response to the way in which Tingaud uses food as the subject of his art has a lot to do with how you conceive ofcooking itself. It became increasingly evident. as ideas were bandied about in the discussion, that

the question ofcooking as an art form is as tricky as filling a colander with milk.

‘But aren’t most meals just executions of recipes?‘ piped up one provocateur. clearly fed up with what he saw as over-intellectualisation. Another objected that a meal could hardly enable us to come to terms with emotions: ‘I have never had a tragic meal.’ ‘I have had several.’ was the response. One lady topped this. saying she had got so excited preparing vegetables that the feeling lasted for days and days.

Jean-Michel Lorain explained that for him, design is the starting point. Only when he has a total conception - oflook. taste. smell and texture. of whether there will be subtle harmonies or striking contrasts - will he go about finding the ingredients and techniques to realise it. Success, he says. depends equally on artistic flair and culinary expertise. For those ofhis ilk, it is not possible to cheat whereas catering college manuals advocate curtains of aspic, slices of stuffed olives and fronds of ‘garnish’ that are not intended to be eaten. and suggest that a few prawns piled on top ofa salad might fool a customer into thinking there would be as many within.

Tingaud refused the relegation of cooking and photography to the status of minor arts on the grounds

that both chef and photographer are constantly asking themselves the same questions as other artists; exploring the nature of their medium. their relationship to it and


ChelJ.M. Lorain.

totheir‘audience’. _

It would be a shame if. in reaching for acknowledgement, the masters ofgastronomy forgot that the enormous cultural significance their art already possesses is due to its basis in human necessity. Hasn‘t cooking always been free of the pretensions ofother art forms, its constant effort to make life palatable, to bring people together and to stimulate them. always tempered with the acknowledgement ofthe most basic need at its heart and the fundamental implications ofthat need. Ironically enough. hunger was mentioned just once at the French Institute - as a pretext for closing the debate.

The exhibition catalogue laments the implications of natures mortes. the French expression for still life representations, but I have to say I found it singularly descriptive in this context. No one could deny the vibrance and tactile quality of Tingaud‘s pictures. but for me. beautifully preserved in their black frames, his subjects have lost their essence, which is their relationship to life.

Portraits des C hejs runs until 15 Mar at the French Institute. Edinburgh. See review in A rt listings.


I Ventura Albion Street. 552 1388. This cafe-bar, open just two weeks. and incorporating Primavera restaurant. aims to be another venue

75 The List 22 February 7 March 1991